Cardinal Joseph Bernardin A lesson in dying: Senior prelate known for compassion, tolerance and reconciliation.

November 15, 1996

WHEN WORD reached the Washington gathering of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops that Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's physical condition was rapidly deteriorating, his fellow bishops immediately bowed in prayer for him.

That was perhaps to be expected, since Cardinal Bernardin, who died early yesterday at age 68, was not only the Roman Catholic Church's longest serving American prelate, but a man so renowned for his compassion, tolerance and skill at the art of peacemaking that many regard him as the greatest American Catholic of his generation.

But equally telling of his spiritual legacy were the innumerable expressions of love and concern from all corners of Chicago, where for 16 years Cardinal Bernardin had led the nation's second-largest Catholic archdiocese.

As the church prepares its own funeral arrangements, a rabbi is planning a memorial service at which Chicago's Jewish community can say good-bye to a Christian friend. On Tuesday, as the cardinal's death drew near, a group of African American preachers paid tribute to him at a Baptist church. Earlier, when Cardinal Bernardin still had strength to move around, he had answered the pleas of a Muslim on death row. During a visit to the prison, the cardinal and the criminal, both facing death, recited together the words from St. Francis, "It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. It is in dying that we are born to eternal life."

Since learning in August that his cancer had returned and that he had a year or less to live, Cardinal Bernardin's life had itself become a sermon, an extended lesson that in facing death one can truly embrace the fullness of life.

Always known for his ability to reconcile opposing factions (an ability he shared with Baltimore's late Cardinal Lawrence Shehan), Cardinal Bernardin was never more effective than when he defended his Common Ground initiative, a controversial effort to seek more dialogue between liberal and conservative Catholics. "A dying person does not have time for the peripheral, the accidental," he told a gathering last month. "It is wrong to waste the precious gift of time given to us, as God's chosen servants, on acrimony and division."

That's a lesson that applies far beyond church walls.

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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